Archives For Postings

With the denomination seemingly on the precipice over sexuality and creaking under the weight of institutional decline, we talked with Christy Thomas about her recent article “It’s Time to Pull the Plug on the UMC.”

Christy is a writer and retired United Methodist Elder. She blogs at the Thoughtful Pastor. She writes the weekly religion column (Ask the Thoughtful Pastor) for the Denton Record-Chronicle newspaper. She also does film reviews, opinion pieces, and has completed one book (An Ordinary Death) with others in the works.

Next up: conversations with man Stanley Hauerwas says is the best theologian in America, Robert Jenson, and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame as well as Carol Howard Merritt about her new book.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

Do Your Part!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website. If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

 

 

St. Luke tells of Jesus encountering a woman possessed by a spirit. She has been bent over, unable to stand up straight, crippled for 18 years. At least, bent-over and crippled is how her neighbors see her and, presumably, Jesus’ disciples. But at the end of the story in Luke 13, after the exorcism slash healing, Jesus proclaims her to be a “daughter of Abraham.”

The point isn’t so much Jesus healing her as it Jesus teaching his listeners how properly to see her. She was a beautiful daughter of Abraham even before Jesus freed her of the spirit. Such is the entire Gospel.

It’s about learning to see.

Despite having been told that Christ is risen, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus speak of Jesus (to the stranger who is Jesus) in the past tense: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Having been crucified, Jesus now belongs to past history.

In the moment their eyes are opened to him- and the passive voice is key, Jesus is the agent of the revelation and Jesus remains ever thus- they don’t simply see that it’s Jesus there among them. They see that Jesus does not belong to the past, or rather they see that the past history of the historical Jesus has invaded their present, that the Jesus of this Gospel of Luke is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Resurrection means that what is past now isn’t Jesus.

What is past is their lives lived apart from him.

In Luke’s Emmaus story, it’s not- as it’s so often interpreted from pulpits and altars- that the breaking of the bread opens their eyes or that the breaking of the eucharistic bread, magically or mechanistically, can open ours. It’s that Jesus, who is not dead, chooses that particular moment on the way to Emmaus to reveal his presence to them and that Jesus can freely choose still to reveal (or choose not to reveal) his presence to us.

The point of Luke’s story, which Karl Barth said was a lens through which the entire Gospel should be seen, is that these two Emmaus bound disciples do not deduce Jesus’ presence among them. They do not perceive it through their own agency. Jesus, risen and alive, is not only the head of the Church. He is its acting subject.

Disciples are not, in the evangelical parlance, those who’ve come to know Jesus.

Disciples are those to whom Jesus has made himself known.

As obvious a point as this may appear to you and as clear a takeaway as it is in Luke’s Gospel, post-cancer I’ve been convicted (I freaking NEVER use that word) by the extent to which my preaching, prayer, and pastoral ministry treats Jesus in the very manner those two Emmaus bound disciples do, as belonging to the past– distant in history and disappeared now to sit at the right hand of the Father.

Sure, every Eastertide I proclaim his resurrection and I’m even willing to posture apologetically to assert the historical plausibility of his resurrection; nonetheless, I treat his resurrection primarily as an event in the past and his ascension as his departure from earth to heaven, forgetting his Gospel-ending Easter promise: “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.”

I shouldn’t need to point out how such forgetting conveniently makes our Christianity no different than functional atheism, for it allows us to live in this world as if Jesus isn’t really, here and now, the Lord of it.

I’ve seen Jesus the same way the disciples see that bent-over woman such that those two Emmaus-bound disciples might as well have never sat down at table with the Risen Christ because I- we- still usually render him they way they did before supper. We study the Gospels as texts of what Jesus did, what Jesus taught, what Jesus said rather than proclaiming that Jesus, being very much not dead, still speaks and teaches and DOES.

To take one important example, we think of faith as something we do. Belief is our possession, we think. Faith is our activity of which we’re the acting subjects. We make a decision for Christ. We invite him into our hearts. But if Jesus is alive, if he reveals himself and open eyes on the way to Emmaus, if he confronts us behind our locked doors and summons out of us, despite our doubts, confessions like ‘My Lord and my God” then our faith is the act of the Risen Christ upon us. What Jesus does on the road to Emmaus is what Jesus only ever does still.

We don’t invite Jesus into our hearts.

The Risen Christ invades our hearts.

To take another important example, we think of the Church in such a way that effectively conjugates Jesus in the past tense the same way these Emmaus-bound disciples do.

This week in my little stream of the Church, the UMC, a Judicial Council is meeting to adjudicate the election last year of a gay bishop. How the UMC is structured just like the U.S. government and we think sexuality is our primary problem is a mystery to me, but my point is:

The UMC is fraught right now with speech about the “future of the Church” that in itself betrays a lack of resurrection faith.

Books like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option portend ominously the demise of Christianity in the West while denominations ratchet up the pressure on pastors to play hero and arrest sobering statistical trends.

As my former teacher Beverly Gaventa says:

“We act as if the Christian faith itself were on life support and it’s our job to find ways of resurrecting it.

We act as if pollsters [behind the Pew Survey on Religion] were in charge of the world rather than simply being in charge of a few questions.”

The Church isn’t our work or creation. It is the means through which the Risen Christ works and creates.

To the extent we ‘see’ him to as he is, risen and alive and acting still, the Church- in some form or another-will always have a way forward.

 

 

 

In this installment of our lectionary podcast, we talk about Lazarus’ death breath and whether Jesus needed Mentos before he rose from the dead and breathed onto his disciples. We also ponder essential questions like ‘Would Jesus have netted himself better disciples had he used Tinder?’ We also talk about the bible and how to preach it.

Our guest again is Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church and author of Water to Wine. This week’s lections include: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

Becca Stevens was our guest preacher this Sunday to preach on John 20.19-31.

Becca is an Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee, author of Snake Oil and many other books, and, most importantly, she is the founder of Thistle Farms, the largest social enterprise in the U.S. run by survivors of sex trafficking.

First-

In case you missed it, here’s a recent interview I did about my book for Progressive Spirit Radio and here’s the interview I did for the Drew Marshall Show.

Second-

Until April 30, you can get the e-book of Cancer is Funny for only…

$3.99.

Since you, dear reader, have probably already bought the book why not use this incredibly cheap ass offer to gift the e-version to someone you know?

Here’s the link.

Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed!

And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity. As the Gospel lectionary for the Sunday after Easter Sunday makes clear, Jesus’ disciples doubted his resurrection even as they worshipped him. Thomas insisted even for more proof.

The late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.

Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments: 

“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.

It says something permanent about God:

not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.

The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.

If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.

The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.

Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).

‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’

Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.

Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.

The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.

On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.

It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.

It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.

Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.

So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us through the sacraments still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’

In the age of Trump does America need a new public theologian? Someone like Reinhold Niebuhr?

Jason caught up with Martin Doblemeir, the founder and president of Journey Films, to talk about their latest project, “An American Conscience: The Niebuhr Story.” Jason took the name of his blog, Tamed Cynic, from Reinhold Niebuhr’s memoir, a book first given to him as a new Christian by his mentor Dennis Perry.

From Journey Films: “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story examines the career and global impact of renowned American-born theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who became a voice of conscience to a country reaching the pinnacle of its economic and political power. As the Great Depression gripped America, he rocked the liberal Christian community with ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society,’ which challenged the idea of inherent progress and justice in history. During and after the war, Niebuhr helped establish the infrastructure that gave Christian churches and thinkers a voice in postwar politics, and proved instrumental in the effort to form the World Council of Churches.”

Check out the film on Journey’s website. It’s currently on tour and airing on PBS.

Next up: conversations with man Stanley Hauerwas says is the best theologian in America, Robert Jenson, and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame as well as Carol Howard Merritt about her new book.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

Do Your Part!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website. If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

If it were a metaphor, we should worship the universal principle behind the metaphor instead of Jesus Christ. Or so I argue. For Easter, Dennis Perry and I did a dialogue sermon for all 5 services. Dialogues aren’t really my forte but I think this one turned out solid. You can listen to it below. You can listen watch the live stream of the 8:30 service here.

The Second Sunday of Easter is upon us and, with it, Doubting Thomas and Peter preaching resurrection in Acts 2.

Taylor and I talked with Brian Zahnd about the lectionary readings for Sunday, challenging him to ignore the Gospel reading and focus on the other readings instead. Brian is the pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He’s also the author of Water to Wine, Farewell to Mars, and Beauty Will Save the World. Check him out at www.brianzahnd.com.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

This Easter, in the dialogue sermon I participated in with Dennis Perry, I mentioned how I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because I know Jesus Christ is alive and so God must have raised him from the dead. That is, when I was 17 years old or so I had an encounter with the Risen Christ.

Like so many other Christians I know.

Like the 514 witnesses whose names Paul can tick off in 1 Corinthians 15.

Quite obviously this was a subjective assertion, rooted in my own experience of being encountered and was decidedly not- as one vociferous worshipper grumbled- an “empirical or objective explanation” for the resurrection.

While the Barthian in me bristles at the unexamined assumption that that which is ‘objective’ and true must be empirically verifiable, it’s nonetheless true that the same Barthian in me is allergic to rational apologetics. I simply do not believe that the claims of Christianity can or should be rendered demonstrably true or, even worse, reasonable.

Any Christianity that ‘makes sense’ flies in the face of the first truth of the faith:

Dead people stay dead.

And what God does in Christ is completely unexpected and counterintuitive.

Having said that, however, maybe the grumbling worshipper (a Deist in Christian clothes) was on to something. I do not believe in apologetics or making the common-sense case for Christ, yet neither do I believe that the ineffable and ineluctable nature of the resurrection makes it UNreasonable.

To say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is true, for we believe God intervenes from beyond history to raise Jesus from beyond the grave.

But to say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is not also to suggest that the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical plausibility, for we believe God intervenes to raise Jesus from the grave within history.

In fact, though it wasn’t the intent of the Easter sermon, to argue the plausibility of the resurrection, I do think the resurrection is the best- or at least a compelling- historical explanation for the resurrection of Jesus.

I believe it.

Like Paul, and for that matter like every story there is, I believe the ending of the story determines the truth and worthwhileness of everything which precedes it. If Jesus is not raised, I’m with Nietszche because if Jesus is not raised all the facts of history are on Friedrich’s side not Yeshua.

I do believe in the resurrection. I believe it based on my subjective experience, and I believe it as history. Some of you, I know, do not. Actually, my experience as a pastor in Mainline Christianity has taught me that a good many Christians, if not the majority, do not believe anything actually happened on Easter morning.

In my experience, most quietly confess the creeds but inwardly believe that Jesus was only raised in the hearts of his followers. Others are more open about their doubts, armed with just enough popular press ‘facts’ to miss just how impoverished is their logic- never seriously considering how, to take one example, someone’s existential experience of feeling Jesus in their heart was not likely to persuade another and even less so to lead them to a cross of their own.

Even still, I know some of you doubt the resurrection.

And I want to know why. Or what.

So if you doubt the resurrection, I’ve got some questions for you to consider. And, if you’re so bold, to answer:

If it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, triumphing over Death and Sin would you then be willing to trust that he is ‘Lord?’

Or, would you at least believe that, having been vindicated by God, Christ’s obedience is what God desires from all of us?

If you say, No, then do you think Easter is irrelevant regardless of whether it’s true or not? Why?

If you say, Yes, then, other than the manner in which we’ve received the gospel, how would you expect the news of Jesus’ resurrection to reach us today? What else would you require to accept it as a trustworthy witness?

And if you would require some other ‘evidence’ of the resurrection, are you actually saying that you need another miracle to verify the prior miracle of the resurrection?

Or are you saying that that even if God raised Jesus from the dead you would not believe? Because you don’t believe in miracles at all? Period.

And if you don’t believe in miracles at all, if you believe then that creation is a closed system from which God is transcendentally apart and in to which God does not act, then aren’t you really saying (even if you go to Church, pray etc) that you’re an atheist?

Or a clockmaker Deist like TJ?

But then that leads to one last question, the money question:

If creation is a closed system in which something could not have happened because we do not now observe it happening, then isn’t your ‘reason’ itself a product of that closed system?

And if so, then hasn’t your mind and reason evolved purely through natural selection alone? To give you a better chance only at survival?

And if so, then on what grounds could your mind and reason possibly be in a position to know what is true about reality (that closed system) as a whole?

There’s a big, big difference between saying ‘I do not believe the resurrection of Jesus happened’ and ‘I do not believe resurrections can happen.’

I suspect most claim the former while in fact confessing the latter, not realizing they leave this trail of logic behind them…

Resurrections (as events from beyond history in history) cannot happen.

Therefore God (as Being and Actor beyond history) does not exist.

Therefore Reason (my ability to speculate about the bounds of history and reality) does not exist, or at least not in the manner in which I assume.

Or, as my teacher David Bentley Hart puts it: david_bentley_hart

“…it makes sense to believe in both reason and God, and it may make a kind of nonsensical sense to believe in neither, but it is ultimately contradictory to believe in one but not the other.

An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith…”

In other words, while belief in the resurrection yields fools for Christ, non-belief in its possibility yields fools.

In all the commotion of Holy Week, I forgot to push our latest conversation from Crackers and Grape Juice.

In Episode 89 (we’ve been at this almost a year now and we’re nearing #100!), Teer Hardy and I talk with our friend and colleague Drew Colby about racism.

Drew Colby is a UMC elder, pastor, and one of the podcast’s biggest fans. And critics. 

Coming up on the podcast:

Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Robert Jenson and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. 

Here’s my Good Friday sermon from tonight, using the lectionary text from Hebrews 10.11-25

     On Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo.

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner here at Aldersgate named Jonathon.

Jonathon’s a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear. No.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of forsakenness nor to protect God from them. My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him.

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

    You’re not, FYI, getting out of life alive.

When you give up the ghost, your soul isn’t going to fly away to the great by-and-by.

Your body isn’t going to become just a shell while your spirit whisks away down a bright tunnel filled with warm light.

People will stand by your grave and weep, as they should, because you are not a thousand winds that blow. You are not the diamond glints on snow.

You are there. Planted in the ground. Earth to earth. Dust to dust.

Ashes awaiting God’s final resurrection.

None of us is getting out life alive.

Someday, maybe soon maybe later, your breath will become air.

And you will be as dead as Jesus is tonight, every bit as dead as Jesus is tomorrow and tomorrow night.

If Jesus doesn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday then neither do we. We are baptized, after all, not into a club called church. We’re baptized into death, his death.

Death is not natural. It is the enemy of God, says scripture; however, death is as ubiquitous as it is inexorable.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

And we don’t like to talk about it much anymore in churches like ours with tax brackets like yours but, before the final resurrection, you will be called before the mercy seat of Almighty God, what the Book of Common Prayer calls “…the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all our hearts shall be disclosed.” 

That line about “the dreadful day of judgment” comes from the wedding liturgy, right before the vows so that the bride and groom know the stakes before they promise not to destroy each others’ lives.

Because all of us, married or not- we are a people who actively every day do damage to the people in our lives and every day by our apathy do damage to people we never see except in the news.

We’re sinners.

And as we are, just the way we are, to stand before the Lord would be a terror not a joy. We forget- that’s why the Israelites charged Moses to go up Mt. Sinai to go before the Lord. They didn’t want to do so themselves.

That isn’t to say God is awful or angry; it’s to recognize that very often we are both, awful and angry, and if God is a refining fire then to stand before the Lord just as we are, the way we are, the sum of so many of our sins- to stand before God who is a refining fire means that there is much of us- much about us- that will get burned away by the holiness of God.

———————-

     Speaking of fire, no doubt talk of judgment sounds brimstone harsh to you.

Of course it does. You have been conditioned by a culture that has made that word ‘judgment’ the worst of pejoratives: judgmental. And if its the worst that can be said of us, it’s the last that should be said of God.

We think.

God, our culture has conditioned us to think, is like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you.

I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. Since it’s Good Friday, I mean only to point out the basic presupposition of Jesus’ Bible.

This:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. We aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. We have to be rendered acceptable. We have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the thread that stiches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death.

———————-

     Thus does the Book of Leviticus begin with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

 God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

It’s easy for us to dismiss this God behind the tent door as aloof and unapproachable.

It’s easy for us to miss that it’s God who gives his People the instructions for all these sacrifices; that is, God himself gives his People the means for the ongoing restoration of their relationship with him.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are.

God gives his perpetually wayward People the means to stand before him unburdened and unafraid. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

—————————

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single answer to the question “How does the death of Christ save us?”

The Gospels, after all, exposit Jesus’ crucifixion but they never explain it.

The creeds require us to profess that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but the creeds do not ask us to agree on what that death accomplished or how.

Through the centuries the Church has offered possible answers.

On the Cross, God in Christ defeats the Power of Sin and Death. On the Cross, God in Christ transforms our hearts by demonstrating the love in his own. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the punishment owed to us, setting us free from our debt of sin by paying it in our place.

And so on.

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single explanation for Christ’s death.

Except, that’s not exactly true.

The Church did decide to include in the New Testament canon the Book of Hebrews. Not only is it one of the longest books in the New Testament, it is the only book in the New Testament devoted entirely to describing the meaning of Jesus’ death.

And it does so exclusively by framing Jesus’ death in continuity with the sacrificial system of Jesus’ Bible.

But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Not one.

By contrast, the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin. All.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

For all.

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.

A sacrifice not just for God’s People but for all people.

———————-

     Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, isn’t a victim of our wrath. He isn’t a ransom paid to the Devil. He isn’t the punished in your place or the debt that ameliorates God’s offended honor.

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, is our Great High Priest.

He’s our Great High Priest not through lineage like those other high priests but “through the power of his indestructible life.” 

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, bears the stamp of God’s own nature. He’s the heir of all things and through him all things were made.

But-

But he was made like us in every respect. This priest was made like his people in every way.

Just as we are tempted and weak, he was tempted and weak. Just was we hunger and thirst and fear and feel forsaken, so too did he hunger and thirst, fear and feel forsaken. He suffered just as we suffer. And, he died just as we die.

 Just as none of us is getting out of life alive, neither did he.

His death, in other words, isn’t the death we had coming to us.

His death was a death that comes to us all.

His death isn’t a penal punishment but the product of his having been made like us in every respect.

He died the way he did because of the way he lived, but he died because he lived, because he was made like us in every respect.

And because he has been made like us in every respect, not only do we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness we have a priest who when he enters the presence of God he does not go alone.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too.

And there this Great High Priest offers not a ransom or a debt.

    This Great High Priest offers a gift.

    Not a calf or a goat or grain but a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

    A gift that can’t be reciprocated it can only redound to others.

His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross, to make atonement.

For us.

A gift exceeding all cost such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again.

——————————-

     Jonathon died this evening.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

But none of us need fear. None of us need to fear death, fear that day when the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed.

We need not fear because, after he gifts himself as a perfect once for all sacrifice, this Great High Priest never leaves the Father, because he draws near and stays near, because he sits down at the right hand of the Father permanently, says the Book of Hebrews, he intercedes for us.

Perpetually.

He intercedes for us. Perpetually. He prays for us. Without ceasing.

He confesses for us.

Perpetually.

So that-

Although we know we are not acceptable before the Lord just as we are, we need not fear.

We need not fear that God will make us more than we are.

We need not fear that the secrets of all our hearts one day will be disclosed and God will render us into something other than what we are now.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we can trust.

We can trust that when we die and our breath becomes air and the dust of our bones returns to the dust we will experience the refining fire of God’s holiness.

We will.

But we will not experience it as the wrathful heat of hell.

We will experience it as the warm light of God’s love.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we will all become as the Burning Bush, ablaze with God’s refining fire.

But not consumed by it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A colleague recently advocated altering the traditional serving words for the eucharist (The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.) to: ‘Christ is here, in your brokenness. Christ is here, bringing you to life.’ Or, ‘Christ broken, with us in our brokenness. Christ’s life, flowing through our lives.’

Such redactions just won’t do the heavy lifting if one is committed to taking seriously the language of scripture. While the traditional imagery of blood sacrifice may make some squeamish as Fleming Rutledge insists:

It is “central to the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, and without this theme the Christian proclamation loses much of its power, becoming both theologically and ethically undernourished.”

Mainline Christians frequently express disdain for the blood imagery of scripture. We judge it, snobbishly Rutledge thinks, to be primitive; meanwhile, we let our kids play Black Ops 3, we fill the theaters for Fate of the Furiousand we refer to those innocents killed by our drones as ‘bugsplat.’ That is, if we care about the droned dead at all.

We exult in gore and violence in our entertainments, but we feign that we’re too fastidious to exalt God by singing ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

In our disinclination towards the language of blood and sacrifice, treating it as a detachable option in atonement theology, Christians today could not be more different from the writers of the Old Testament who held that humanity is distant from God in its sin and atonement is possible only by way of blood. Viewed from the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, we make the very error Anselm cautions against in Cur Deus Homo. We’ve not truly considered the weight of sin.

Editing out blood sacrifice commits the very act is intended to avoid, violence. It commits violence agains the text of scripture by eviscerating the language of the bible.

Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ 3 times more often than it speaks of the death of Christ.

Such a statistic alone reveals the extent to which blood sacrifice is a dominant theme in extrapolating the meaning of Christ’s death.

Scripture gives the witness repeatedly:

God comes under God’s judgement as a blood sacrifice for sin.

Put in the logic of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system: something of precious value is relinquished in exchange for something of even greater gain. Blood for peace.

We might find such language repellent. Many do. Perhaps we should recoil at it considering how its an indictment upon our own sinfulness. We might wish to alter the words we say when handing the host to a communicant. What we cannot do is pretend blood sacrifice is not the way scripture itself speaks.

Not only is blood sacrifice a dominant motif in scripture, its a theme upon which many other atonement motifs rely, such as representation, substitution, propitiation, vicarious suffering, and exchange. Something as simple as switching from ‘The blood of Christ shed for you’ to ‘The cup of love’ effectively mutes the polyvalence of scripture’s voice.

And what does lie behind our resistance to blood sacrifice?

I can’t help but wonder if the popular disdain for blood sacrifice owes less to our concern for violence and more to do with our contemporary gospel of inclusivity.

Along with the mantra of inclusivity’s charitable appraisal of human nature and its ever progressing evolution.

The self-image we derive from American culture is that I’m okay and you’re okay. We translate grace according to culture so that Paul’s message of rectification becomes ‘accept that you are accepted.’ God loves you just as you are, we preach, Because of course, God loves us. How could a good God not love wonderful people like us?

As Stanley Hauerwas jokes, we make the doctrine of the incarnation ‘God put on our humanity and declared ‘Isn’t this nice?!’

The governing assumption behind blood sacrifice could not be more divergent. ‘The basic presupposition here [in Leviticus],’ says Rutledge,

‘is that we aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. Something has to transpire before we are counted as acceptable…the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings is assumed to be so great that the sacrificial offering has to be made on a regular basis.’

The self-satisfied smile we see in Joel Osteen is a reflection of our own. Our glib view of ourselves is such that we cannot imagine why God would not want to come near us. Scripture’s sober view of us is that we cannot come near God, in our guilt, without God providing the means for us to live in God’s presence. Another life in place of our own, a blameless and unblemished one.

Whatever our reason for spurning blood sacrifice, our disdain for it raises an even more pernicious problem.

If we refuse to interpret Christ’s death as a blood sacrifice, ruling such imagery as out of bounds, what connection remains between Jesus and Jesus’ own scriptures?

To jettison blood sacrifice is to unmoor Jesus from the bible by which he would have understood his own deeds and death, making it unclear in what sense it makes any sense to say, as we must, that Jesus was and is a Jew. Disdain for blood sacrifice becomes a kind of supercessionism. Desiring to cleanse our view of God of any violence we unwittingly commit a far worse sort of (theological) violence: cleansing God of God’s People.

Which begs the question,  if progressive Christians in America today are substantively different than the Christian European sophisticates of the late 19th century who viewed the ethnic, cultic faith of the Jews with similar disdain.

If we profess the conviction that a crucified Jewish Messiah is Lord, then we must submit to understanding him according to the terms by which he would’ve understood himself.

In order to be a Christian.

 

Paul’s argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless. Especially when it comes to Jesus’ teachings, we’re off the hook if Jesus has not been vindicated by God through resurrection.

These assertions naturally provoke pushback:

‘But you don’t have to believe in the Resurrection to be a Christian. 

You can be a Christian by following the teachings of Jesus.’ 

Yeah, well, not really.

Never mind the irritating fact that if Jesus was not raised from the dead then there’s nothing transformative and death-defeating about his teaching. It just got him killed. Death had the last word (and still does).

If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then God did not vindicate Jesus’ life, his way of life.

His teachings.

So then there’s nothing special about them, they lead only to crosses.

And then Nietzsche is right: power and will are the only sane, responsible ways to live in this world.

And then Paul is right: of all people in the world, we’re the most pitiable.

But the resurrection is a necessary belief on a less theological level too.

On an evidentiary level.

Think about it:

If I was witness called to the stand to testify on behalf of a defendant and every bit of my testimony rung true to you, the jury, until I got to the end of my story- the most important part- and I outright lied, then you would no longer trust any of my preceding testimony and you would cast aspersions upon the defendant about whom I lied.

At least, you should if you were doing your job as a jury.

To dismiss the Resurrection claim, which the evangelists believed whether or not you do, is to call them liars.

And if you think the evangelists liars about the climactic turn in their testimony, why in the world would you trust their prior testimony about the words and deeds of Jesus?

The disciples, after all, didn’t simply convert from one religion to another; they lived- suddenly- as if they inhabited a totally new world.

The disciples from whom we have received the Resurrection witness are the selfsame evangelists through whom we have received the ministry of Jesus. If they lied about the former then we’ve no basis to trust the latter.

And it really does come down to trust then, doesn’t it?

Because if you’re willing to accept the words and deeds of Jesus, as testified to by the evangelists, but not the Resurrection, as testified to by the evangelists, then you are, quite literally, picking and choose parts of the Gospel witness that you like.

Or that make sense to you. Or that fit into your a priori modernist worldview.

You’re not willing to trust that if what the apostles tell you about the sermon on the mount is true then perhaps what they tell you about empty tomb is too.

And ‘trust,’ let us not forget, is the best definition/translation for what the bible calls ‘faith.’

In many mainline congregations this Holy Week, the dominant motif with which scripture describes the meaning of the death of Jesus, substitution, will be judiciously avoided. Substitutionary atonement, it’s often said with no small amount of enlightened self-congratulation, is a medieval caricature, depicting an angry, wrath-filled God who kills Jesus- in our place- to vindicate and avenge his sin-besmirched honor.

To the extent this critique of scripture’s substitution motif is valid, it is valid only because we have narrowed the cast of characters in scripture’s salvation drama.

With the antagonist removed from the stage, humanity becomes the object of God’s wrath and, truth be told as unintelligible as it is, God the Father becomes the antagonist from whom God the Son saves us.

Such is what happens when we excise the Devil from the story.

Like Fred and Vilma, the Enlightenment tempts us to want to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

Call it what you will:

The Devil

Sin and Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says in the Gospels

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together. The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.”

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist and nowhere more so than upon the cross.

Not only is Sin, as in the Power of Sin- Satan, the New Testament’s narrative glue, it is the necessary antagonist to any coherent understanding of substitutionary atonement.

If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama.

It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross. According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place.

The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

God’s wrath isn’t directed at us or character flaw within us called ‘sin.’ God’s wrath, out of love for us, is directed at that which holds us in bondage, the Power of Sin.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan, and the battlefield runs through every human heart.

Without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because when we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama, when we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us), what happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.

Easter Sunday, at least the 2nd or 3rd most important holy day of the Church year.

Taylor and I talked with Brian Zahnd about the lectionary readings for Easter Sunday, challenging him to ignore the Gospel reading and focus on the other readings instead. Brian is the pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He’s also the author of Water to Wine, Farewell to Mars, and Beauty Will Save the World. Check him out at www.brianzahnd.com.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

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     Here’s my sermon from Palm-Passion Sunday on Matthew 26.36-46, Jesus in the Garden in Gethsemane.

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus and his friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that holy week, these hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would gather at table and temple and they would remember.

They would remember how they’d once suffered bondage under another empire, and how God had heard their outrage and sent someone to save them.

They would remember how God had promised them: “I will be your God and you will be my People.” Always.

They would remember how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God had delivered them from a Caesar called Pharaoh.

Passover was a political powder keg so every year Pontius Pilate would do his damnedest to keep Passover in the past tense.

Every year at the beginning of Passover week Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph, a shock-and-awe storm-trooping parade of horses and chariots and troops armed to the teeth and prisoners bound hand and foot and all of it led by imperial banners that dared as much as declared “Caesar is Lord.”

———————————

      So when Jesus, at the beginning of that same week, rides into Jerusalem from the opposite direction there could be no mistaking what to expect next.

Deliverance from enemies. Defeat of them. Freedom. Exodus from slavery.

How could there be any mistaking, any confusing, when Jesus chooses to ride into town- on a donkey, exactly the way the prophet Zechariah had foretold that Israel’s King would return to them, triumphant and victorious, before he crushes their enemies.

There could be no mistaking what to expect next.

That’s why they shout ‘Hosanna! Save us!’ and wave palm branches as they do every year for the festival of Sukkoth, another holy day when they recalled their exodus from Egypt and prayed for God to send them a Messiah.

The only reason to shout Hosanna during Passover instead of Sukkoth is if you believed that the Messiah for whom you have prayed has arrived.

There could no mistaking what to expect next.

That’s why they welcome him with the words “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” the very words with which God’s People welcomed Solomon to the Temple.

The same words Israel sang upon Solomon’s enthronement. Solomon, David’s son. Solomon, the King.

There could be no mistake, no confusion, about what to expect next.

Not when he lights the match and tells his followers to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (i.e., absolutely nothing).

Not when he cracks a whip and turns over the Temple’s tables as though he’s dedicating it anew just as David’s son had done.

Not when he takes bread and wine and with them makes himself the New Moses.

And not when he gets up from the Exodus table, and leads his followers to, of all places, the Mount of Olives.

The Mount of Olives was ground zero. The front line.

The Mount of Olives was the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised that God’s Messiah would initiate a victory of God’s People over the enemy that bound them.

From the parody of Pilate’s parade to the palm leaves, from the prophesied donkey to the shouts of hosanna, from Solomon’s welcome to the exodus table to the Mount of Olives every one in Jerusalem knew what to expect. There could be no mistaking all the signs.

They knew how God was going to use him.

He would be David to Rome’s Goliath.

He would face down a Pharaoh named Pilate, deliver the message that the Lord has heard the cries of his People and thus says he: “Let my People go.”

As though standing in the Red Sea bed, he would watch Pilate and Herod and all the rest swallowed up in and drowned by God’s righteousness. God’s justice.

They knew how God was going to use him.

———————————

     And when he invites Peter, James, and John, the same three who’d gone with him to the top of Mt. Horeb where they beheld him transfigured into glory, to go with him to the top of the Mount of Olives they probably expect a similar sight.

To see him transfigured again.

To see him charged with God’s glory.

To see him armed with it.

Armed for the final and decisive battle.

The battle that every sign and scripture from that holy week has led them to expect.

Except-

There on the top of the Mount of Olives Jesus doesn’t look at all as he had on top of that other mountain.

Then, his face had shone like the sun. Now, it’s twisted into agony.

Then, they’d seen him dazzling white with splendor. Now, he’s distraught with doubt and dread.

Then, on top of that other mountain, Moses and the prophet Elijah had appeared on either side of him. Now, on this mountaintop, he’s alone, utterly, already forsaken, alone except for what the prophet Isaiah called the ‘cup of wrath’ that’s before him.

Then, God’s voice had torn through the sky with certainty “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Now, God doesn’t speak. At all.

So much so that Karl Barth says Jesus’ prayer in the Garden doesn’t even count as prayer because it’s not a dialogue with God. It’s a one way conversation. Because it’s not just that God doesn’t speak or answer back, God’s entirely absent from him, as dark and silent to him as the whale’s belly was to Jonah.

There, on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, and John with their half-drunk eyes- they see him transfigured again.

This would be Messiah who’d spoken bravely about carrying a cross transfigured to the point where he’s weak in the knees and terrified.

This would be Moses who’d stoically taken exodus bread and talked of his body being broken transfigured so that now he’s begging God to make it only a symbolic gesture.

This would be King who can probably still smell the hosanna palm leaves transfigured until he’s pleading for a Kingdom to come by any other means.

Peter and the sons of Zebedee, they see him transfigured a second time. From the Teacher who’d taught them to pray “Thy will be done…” to this slumped over shadow of his former self who knows the Father’s will not at all.

He’d boldly predicted his betrayal and crucifixion and now he’s telling them he’s “deeply grieved and agitated.”

Or, as the Greek inelegantly lays it out there, he tells them he’s “depressed and confused” such that what Jesus tells them in verse 38 is really “Remain here with me and stay awake, for I am so depressed I could die.”

And then he can only manage a few steps before he throws himself down on the ground, and the word Matthew uses there in verse 39, ekthembeistai, it means to shudder in horror, stricken and helpless.

He is, in every literal sense of the Greek, scared out of his mind. Or as the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus here, crying out frantically with great tears.

He is here exactly as Delacroix painted him: flat in the dirt, almost writhing, stretching out his arms, anguish in his eyes, his hands open in a desperate gesture of pleading.

God’s incarnate Son twisted into a golem of doubt and despair.

Transfigured.

As though he’s gone from God’s own righteousness in the flesh to God’s rejection of it.

———————————

      Peter, James, and John, the other disciples there on the Mount of Olives, any of the other pilgrims in Jerusalem that holy week- they’re not mistaken about what should come next. They weren’t wrong to shout “Hosanna!”

They’re all correct about what to expect next. The donkey, the palm leaves, the Passover- it all points to it, they’re right. They’re all right to expect a battle.

A final, once for all, battle.

They’re just wrong about the enemy.

The enemy isn’t Pilate or Herod but the One Paul calls The Enemy.

The Pharaoh to whom we’re all- the entire human race- enslaved isn’t Caesar but Sin. Not your little s sins but Sin with a capital S, whom the New Testament calls the Ruler of this World, the Power behind all the Pharaohs and Pilates and Putins.

They’re all correct about what to expect, but their enemies are all propped up by a bigger one.

A battle is what the Gospel wants you to see in Gethsemane. The Gospel wants you to see God initiating a final confrontation with Satan, the Enemy, the Powers, Sin, Death with a capital D- the New Testament uses all those terms interchangeably, take your pick. But a battle is what you’re supposed to see.

Jesus says so himself: “Keep praying,” he tells the three disciples in the garden, “not to enter peiramos.”

The time of trial.

That’s not a generic word for any trial or hardship. That’s the New Testament’s word for the final apocalyptic battle between God and the Power of Sin.

The Gospels want you to see in the dark of Gethsemane the beginning of the battle anticipated by all those hosannas and palm branches.

But it’s not a battle that Jesus wages.

Jesus becomes its wages.

That is, the battle is waged in him.

Upon him.

From here on out, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, the will of God and the will of Satan coincide in him.

That’s why they’re both- God and Satan- absent from him here in the garden.

Here in the garden he can longer hear God the Father in prayer.

And here in the garden he lacks what even in the wilderness he had- the comfort of a clear and identifiable adversary.

Here in the garden, they’re both absent from him because they’re both set upon him. Their wills have converged on him. They’ve intersected in him.

He can’t see or hear them now because he’s the acted upon object of them.

He is forsaken- by both God and Satan.

They’ve taken their leave of him to work their wills upon him.

Just as we confess that in Christ’s flesh is the perfect union, both fully divine and fully human; here in the garden we also confess that in him there is another union, a hideous union, of wills:

The will of Sin to reject God forever by crucifying Jesus.

The will of God to reject Sin forever by crucifying Jesus.

That’s the shuddering revulsion that overwhelms Jesus in Gethsemane.

     The cross isn’t a shock.

But this is: the realization breaking over him that the will of God will be done as the will of Satan is done.

In him, upon him,‘thy will be done’ will be done for both of them, God and Satan, on Earth as in Heaven and in Hell.

But that’s what Jesus freely assents to here in the garden.

He accepts that he will be the concrete and complete event of God’s rejection of Sin.

He agrees to be made vulnerable to the Power of Sin and God’s judgment of it.

     He consents to absorb the worse that we can do, as slaves to Sin.

     And he consents to absorb the worst that God can do- the worst that God will ever do.

As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: “For our sake, God made him to be Sin who knew no sin.”

That’s what he accepts in getting up off the ground in Gethsemane.

And only he could accept it. Only he who was without sin- who was not enslaved by it- only he could freely choose, freely choose, to become it.

To be transfigured into Sin.

———————————

      Thursday morning one of Aldersgate’s college students texted me a photo from the Washington Post along with a link to an article.

It was a photo of a little child, maybe 2 or 3 years old.

A boy or a girl, I don’t know- I couldn’t tell from the thick curly hair and red cheeks and a drab olive blanket covered up any pink or blue hued clue the child’s clothes might’ve given me.

From the child’s bright black eyes it looked like the child might be smiling, but you couldn’t be sure because a respirator was masking the child’s face where a smile might go.

Gloved grown-up hands rested on the child’s shoulders.

It wasn’t until I read the whole story that I realized those bright black eyes were empty.

Dead.

“World Health Organization says Syria Chemical Attack Likely Involved Nerve Agent” ran the headline texted to me. And under the headline, under the hyperlink, the student texted me a question: “What do Christians say about this.”

And in the second line of text: a question mark.

Followed by an exclamation point.

What do Christians say?!

———————————

     What do Christians say?

Looking into the vacant eyes of a nerve-gassed toddler?

What do we say?

Something trite about God’s love?

Maybe because we’ve turned God’s love into a cliche, maybe because we’ve so sentimentalized what the Church conveys in proclaiming “God loves you” but many people assume that Christians are naive about the dark reality of sin in the world.

But we’re a People who hang a torture device on an altar wall- we’re not naive. We’re not naive about the cruelties of which we’re capable. Nor are we naive about the dreadful seriousness God deals with those cruelties.

What do Christians say? 

     I don’t know that we have anything more to say than what we hear God say in Gethsemane. 

     No.

No.

The dread, final, righteous, wrath-filled “No” God speaks to Sin.

And, yes.

Yes.

The nevertheless “Yes” God speaks to his enslaved sinful creatures.

The “Yes” God in Christ speaks to drinking the cup of wrath to its last drops.

That word ‘wrath’ gets confused in Church.

Sure, we’re all sinners in the hands of a wrathful God but scripture doesn’t mean it the way you hear it. God’s wrath doesn’t mean God is petulant and petty, raging at sinful creatures like you and me, reacting to our every infraction.

God, by definition, doesn’t react.

God’s wrath means that God never changes, that in Jesus Christ God has always been determined to reject the Power of Sin that binds his creatures as slaves.

So much so that God is dead set, literally over his dead body, dead set on killing it.

Killing Sin.

To set his people free from that Pharaoh. Once. For all.

——————————

     St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

Here in Gethsemane, Christ empties himself even of that.

     He empties himself completely, pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says when Jesus gets up off the ground in Gethsemane there’s nothing left of Jesus.

There’s nothing left of his humanity.

He’s an empty vessel; so that, when he drinks the cup the Father will not not move from him, when he drinks the cup of wrath, he fills himself completely with our sinfulness.

From Gethsemane to Golgotha, that’s all there is of him.

He drinks the cup until he’s filled and running over.

You see, Jesus isn’t just a stand-in for a sinner like you or me. He isn’t just a substitute for another. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.

It isn’t that Jesus dies an innocent among thieves. He dies as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.

Jesus swallows all of it. Drinks all of it down and, in doing so, draws into himself the full force of humanity’s hatred for God.

He becomes our hatred for God.

He becomes our evil.

He becomes all of our injustice.

He becomes Sin.

     So that upon the Cross he does not epitomize or announce the Kingdom of God in any way.

     He is the concentrated reality of everything that stands against it.

He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.

He is every Caesar and every Judas.

Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror, and every chemical bomb.

All our greed. All our violence.

He is every ungodly act and every ungodly person.

He becomes all of it.

He becomes Sin.

So that God can forsake it.

Forsake it.

For our sake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Episode 88, Kenneth Tanner and Morgan Guyton checked in with podcast favorite Scot McKnight. Topics covered include a little ribbing on me, politics, and Scot’s latest books, “Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science” and “The Hum of Angels: Listening for the Messengers of God Around Us”.

Next week – Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Robert Jenson and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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In addition to b-boxing and singing “The King of Glory Comes” and discussing the all-important theological question “Will my dog lick his nuts in the eschaton?” the guys talk Palm/Passion Sunday lections with theology professor Eric Hall of Carroll College and the author of the Home-brewed Christianity Guide to God.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

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It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

Here’s a review I wrote for my friend David Fitch’s new book Faithful Presence.

On Ash Wednesday I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo. During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer. I wrote a book called Cancer is Funny but it didn’t feel very funny looking at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got until I make good on the promise that begins every Lenten season: ‘To dust you shall return.”

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to the hospital to visit a parishioner. He’s about my age with a boy about my boy’s age. He got cancer a bit before I did. He thought he was in the clear and now it doesn’t look like it will end well. The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort that he can use to insure that his boy knows who his dad was. We were interrupted again only moments after she left by the chaplain, dressed like an old school undertaker,  offering ashes to us without explanation. It was easier for both of us to nod our heads and receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross. “Remember,” he whispered, “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if the truth that none of us is getting out of life alive wasn’t already palpably felt between us.

The chaplain stepped over the tubes draped off the bed and left as quickly as he’d come. I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of despair nor to protect God from them. It certainly wasn’t to dump on to him the baggage I’d brought from my doctor’s office.

My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, to bring to him my preconceived agenda but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears welling in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we were adoring the host.

I was present to him, with him, buoyed in the confidence that in this discipline of being present with him, naked and afraid- certainly one of whom Jesus calls the least among us, Christ was with us too, present in an almost tangible way that augers a permanent presence God will perfect in the fullness of time.

Here’s a question for the clergy types out there and, even, for ordinary non-pensioned Christians:

The confidence I have in the practice of being present in a hospital room, the trust I have that through the practice of presence Christ is present, why does it not extend to the other disciplines Jesus has given us?

Why is it that in the hospital room I’m content to be present, faithfully, and trust Jesus to show, yet everywhere else in my ministry I run (until I drop) on the unexamined assumption that it’s up to me to change my parishioners’ lives and then, with them, to change the world?

I trust Jesus not to be AWOL in the cancer ward but otherwise I typically operate as if God is the object of a curriculum program (for which I’m always scrambling to find the latest, shiniest product in the Cokesbury catalog) rather than the active agent in the world who calls us to participate with him and to do so not through the latest thematic teaching series but through the concrete practices he gave to us. It’s an assumption that in trying to conform people to Christ leaves them consumers instead and leaves me exhausted.

Taking his title from the coda of James Davidson Hunter’s significant book To Change the World, in Faithful Presence David Fitch unpacks the communal Christian disciplines by which God changes the world.

The grammar of that sentence is key to understanding Fitch’s work and how it connects with his preceding book Prodigal Christianity.

Whereas Fitch worries that James Davidson Hunter’s faithful presence proposal too easily becomes a prescription for individuals embodying the faith in the hopes of transforming culture, thereby underwriting the privatization and loneliness of the culture, Fitch notes how Hunter also misses, as perhaps a sociologist must, that we are not the active agents of mission.

In Faithful Presence, Fitch makes explicit that God is the subject of Christian speech; mission and transformation- they’re what God does.

Faithful presence then names a set of practices of the community but, more foundational, it names a participation in what the Living God is doing antecedent to us. Continuing the premise of Prodigal Christianity, where God the Son forsakes his inheritance to venture out into the Far Country that we call the sinful world in order to return all that belongs to the Father back to the Father, Fitch exposes the anthropological assumptions lurking behind how we conceive of the practices of the Church. They are not our means to God, for, in good Barthian fashion, scripture does not narrate our journey to God but God’s relentless journey to us. Nor do the practices simply equip us to engage in mission as though the mission was our mission. Rather the practices of the Church are the means God in Christ has given to us to locate God at work in the world and to join with God in what God is doing in the world. As Fitch writes, the practice of faithful presence is only intelligible because “God is present in the world and God uses a People faithful to his presence to make himself concrete.” God’s presence in the world, Fitch adds, cannot be apprehended generally or without mediation.

Only God can reveal God.

Therefore, we require the disciplines Jesus gave us.

Fitch’s emphasis on the disciplines echoes a bit with James KA Smith’s You Are What You Love. in that both authors lament the degree to which God in the Enlightenment got relegated to an idea or a belief in the individual’s head. Smith attempts a recovery of the practices of the faith because our formation comes through habituation not information. While Fitch would no doubt concur with Smith about the Enlightenment’s reductionism of discipleship to belief, the practices for Fitch are not merely habits to form us in our faith. They are the promised locations in which Christ is present with us and through which Christ changes the world. As Fitch notes, the Great Commission itself not only promises that Christ will be present to his people (“I am with you always”) the charge to make disciples of all nations assumes disciplines by which will be present to form disciples. The disciplines, as Fitch identifies them, bear resonances with the Catholic sacraments:

The Discipline of the Lord’s Table

The Discipline of Reconciliation

The Discipline of Proclaiming the Gospel

The Discipline of Being with the ‘Least of These’

The Discipline of Being with Children

The Discipline of the Fivefold Gifting

The Discipline of Kingdom Prayer

If Faithful Presence stopped there it would be a helpful theological corrective to how we treat the disciplines, reminding us they’re vessels of God’s activity not our mediums to God, but it would not enliven Christian imagination to broaden what we mean by engaging in God’s mission.

The unique contribution Fitch makes in Faithful Presence is arguing that each of these disciplines given to us by Christ have three interrelated and complimentary manifestations in the social spaces of our lives.

Precisely because God is the active agent of mission, on the move in the world, these disciplines should likewise force us to be on the move in a dynamic that avoids the familiar Sunday to Monday, in here-out there connection that bedevils Christians. Fitch denotes these spaces by illustrating three circles: a closed circle. a dotted circle, and a semi-circle. The closed circles represents the social space of the church. The dotted circle is an extension of the church, our friends and neighbors; like the closed circle, committed Christians still comprise the dotted circle but the dots show how this social space makes room for strangers and seekers too. The semi-circle meanwhile is what we might refer to as a third space where Christians go into the world, into their community, as a guest.

In the case of the Eucharist, for example, the closed circle is obviously the celebration of the sacrament during gathered worship.Because God is on the move, the presence of Christ in the sacramental table extends into the community so that, in the dotted circle, a Christian leader hosts friends, committed and curious, at a table in their home and, over food and wine, they pray together, make themselves vulnerable to one another, discern God’s word, and submit aspects of their lives to the lordship of Christ. Finally, in the semi-circle, the mutual vulnerability at table gets extended out into the community where the Christian is not the host but risks being the guest of neighbors and unbelievers. As Christ is present at the ornate lacquered table in the sanctuary, Christ is present at this ‘profane’ table too, at work to nurture all that is the Father’s back to him.

I taught a PDF version of Faithful Presence to a group of local pastors at Wesley Seminary last summer for a two week course on mission.

The way Fitch extends the disciplines across these social spaces to show how and where the church can engage in God’s mission shifted the entire paradigm for their thinking.

In my own United Methodist tradition, ‘mission’ has gotten redefined as good (social justice) work someone else does, be it the denominational apparatus or the credentialed missionaries funded by it. Not only does this demote our denominational connection to a funding relationship, it disempowers local churches from discerning where God is at work in their local communities. Rather than three increasingly widened circles through which we extend presence, it assumes only two closed circles, the local church celebrating the sacraments and the global church doing good works. Its an arrangement that encourages maintenance mode ministry, which in a post-Christian culture necessarily leads to exhaustion. What’s more, it leaves pastors ill-equipped to extend the disciplines into their homes and community.

Every pair of eyes in the classroom popped open as they begin to revision their ministry, asking what it would be like for them to gather neighbors and community members around the dotted circle of their table, trusting that Christ will be there to call people over time into submission to him. The possibilities multiplied for them as they applied these three social spaces to the other disciplines in Fitch’s book. And, it should be noted, these local pastors all served small congregations. The conventional way of construing mission had only disempowered and discouraged them that churches their size could not meaningfully do mission. They could neither send lots of money to the denomination nor could they execute expensive, volunteer-heavy mission projects for the less fortunate.

In the same way the limitations of a small canvas can provoke the most creative art, Fitch’s explication of these particular disciplines extended across the ordinary social spaces of their lives exploded imaginative possibilities for their ministries.

As much as Christ is present in and through a funded missionary in Cambodia, they realized, Christ is present when they sit with someone like me in the hospital room. If God is the active agent of mission and not us, then it’s silly to distinguish between ‘real’ mission and ordinary practices like breaking bread and forgiving sin.

As a preacher, I think Faithful Presence is worth the read just for the theological framework. Our Christian speech needs reminding always that God is the agent not us.

As a pastor, I believe Faithful Presence is exactly the sort of manual that maintenance modeled mainline churches need in order to learn how to engage with Christ in their post-Christian contexts. In many ways, Faithful Presence is the handbook for how resident aliens live. It offers the praxis Stanley Hauerwas’ sequel to Resident Aliens never quite managed to flesh out.

As a closet Anabaptist, however, I’m left with a question.

I’d like to see Fitch engage how Faithful Presence interacts with John Nugent’s equally good book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. While agreeing with Fitch that God is prodigally at work in the world, my reading of Nugent makes me wonder if Fitch has made the Church too instrumental and not a good and an end in and of itself; that is, is the Church the means through which God is changing the world or, as Nugent argues, is the Church the change, the better place, God has already made in the world?

While I hope to see future engagement between Fitch’s and Nugent’s complementary work, I suspect Fitch’s Faithful Presence is a needed companion to another book in everyone’s queue at present, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option.

Dreher sees Western culture as lost and, in the wake of the Obergefell decision, antithetical to it. In the light of this development, Dreher recommends Christians imitate the witness of St. Benedict of Nursia, retreating into disciplined enclaves of like-minded, like-valued Christians in order to weather a new dark age.

Despite my sympathies for Dreher’s proposal, I think the Benedict Option may be a curious option to commend to Christians in this moment because, in fact, St. Benedict was not retreating from culture. Rather, he was also safeguarding the best contributions of elite and secular culture during the dark ages. Benedict helped change the world not simply by retreating from it, as Dreher suggests, but by preserving the best contributions of culture-makers. St. Benedict, then, corroborates James Davidson Hunter’s thesis that culture is changed only from the top down, from the culture-makers outward to the culture-consumers.

I believe Fitch’s Faithful Presence offers a middle way between the concerns of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option about Christians now living as strangers in a strange land, on the one hand, and Hunter’s argument, on the other, about how cultures undergo transformation through its culture makers. In particular, Fitch’s 3 Circles of faithful presence provide Christians with a more balanced rhythm of gathering in disciplined, intentional community with other Christians, for the sort of formation and preservation Dreher seeks, but also venturing out into networks of friendships and neighborhoods to join in what God is already doing among them.

What Fitch helps us remember, even Dreher, is that discipleship is not only about practices, which can be preserved and practiced apart from culture, it is as much about participation too.

With God.

It all comes back to God’s agency.

The agency of God is perhaps the fatal flaw in Dreher’s book for he forgets, or neglects to make clear, that God is active in the world (a world Dreher would characterize as ‘lost’ to the Church) apart from the Church and God is waiting for the Church, who are God’s sent People, to join him in his work.

Because so many now are discussing the latter book, I cannot recommend the former with heartier enthusiasm.